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How the Shema and Homoousion Come Together in the Nicene Creed

Graphic representing the nicene creed

The prerogative of the priest in charge of catechesis at a cathedral—like me—is to repeatedly set one question before catechumens: Is it truly necessary to recite in the liturgy the language of an ancient creed, with language that sounds strange, bizarre, and abstract?

And some catechumens ask in return: Why is the creed, which at first glance seems to portray the complete picture of the Christian faith, silent about the real life of Jesus? Where in the creed do we hear the sound of the words and breath of this historical, material, human person who walked through the streets of Palestinian markets?

This latter question comes especially from those who have read the first half of N. T. Wright’s How God Became King. It seems that the Nicene Creed essentially skips from the birth of Jesus to the death of Jesus, with no mention of his real life and public ministry, subjects to which the Gospels devote much attention. Indeed, the creed declares that “one Lord, Jesus Christ” is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, … consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father.” The jargon word “consubstantial” really sounds odd, doesn’t it? Is the creed, which is supposed to be biblical, too metaphysical? Now the catechumen is standing in the middle of the very first doctrinal issue within Christianity: Who is Jesus Christ?

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Rowan Williams seems to share that sentiment when he says,

The phrase in the Creed, ‘being of one substance with the Father’ or ‘of one being with the Father’ can sound a bit chilly and technical—even worse in the form ‘consubstantial.’

Williams, however, invites us to take a rather bold view of that unfamiliar word before readily succumbing to easy conclusions:

Yet it ought to be one of the most exciting words in our vocabulary, telling us that what is happening in the person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth, the workman from the backwater town, is one with the essence of God, and nothing less.

There is a beautiful harmony between the material specificity and the divine luminosity, between the historical narratives of the Gospels and the metaphysical articulation of the Creed concerning who Jesus is—rather than a strict dichotomy between incompatible elements. The Creed invites the catechumen to confess a surprising truth at the heart of Christianity: “What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition.”1

So the creed confesses that “We believe in one God,” and in “one Lord Jesus Christ.”

If the catechumen asking questions asks for additional explanation, I am willing to call Jaroslav Pelikan into the catechesis chamber. He succinctly traces how early Christians developed the creed from the strictly monotheistic Shema, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” to a new and christological way of speaking of the consubstantiality (homoousion) of “One Lord (hena kyrion), Jesus Christ” with one God (hena theon). Pelikan considers that this transition or development—not “distortion,” as Adolf von Harnack has claimed—from Shema to homoousion is

the most radical and the most far-reaching case of successful creedal indigenization-cum-differentiation in a new culture during all of Christian history, and the one that has served as a conscious or unconscious paradigm for all the others.2

Is consubstantiality a novel, unprecedented innovation of the early church fathers? No, this development is arguably prefigured in St. Paul’s high christological declaration in 1 Corinthians 8:6:

There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Paul is doing here a complicated, threefold work. He is applying the two terms of Shema—one God and one Lord—to the Father and Christ, respectively, making the Father and Christ distinct while affirming the oneness of God. 3

What was it that exerted pressure on Paul and the early fathers to confess that Jesus Christ has the same nature as God the Father? What was the driving force that led to the surprisingly bold claim that Christ is one with the one God?

What most clearly comes to the fore is the confession in the New Testament that all things were created through, in, and toward Jesus Christ (John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–17). As the doctrines of Christ and creation converged, Christians confessed that Christ was the fountain and telos of creation. Early Christians maintained that Jesus Christ is the “Word” of God, who is “the same essence” as God; and this divine Word provides the logic, reason, intelligibility, and telos of creation. If this is so, one may not be satisfied with the claim that Jesus Christ is merely the loftiest creature. The man who was walking in the alleyway of Galilee was the embodiment of Logos; he was the one through whom, in whom, and to whom God the Father created the world. When Athanasius elevated Jesus Christ to the status of Creator, not creature, the doctrines of Christ and creation were inseparably combined, and Shema had to be transformed into homoousion. Frances Young is quite right. What is the most significant element regarding the development of christology in the ancient church is that “Christology itself was shaped by the underlying issues concerning the relationship between God and the world,”4 that is, the Christian doctrine of creation.

Rowan Williams wrote,

It is in this sense that we can rightly speak of Jesus as the heart of creation, the one on whom all the patterns of finite existence converge to find their meaning.5

The incarnate Word, who is the same essence as God, through whom what is other than God is created, is thus where everything but God in the universe discovers meaning and joy, origin and telos. That is why my catechumens may rightly rest assured that they are doing the right thing when reciting the creed joyously—particularly right after enduring my tiresome sermon! I am looking forward to singing the ancient, strange language of the creed with future catechumens in the Easter Vigil in 2025, which will mark 1,700 years since the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea, where the Nicene Creed began to assume its first form.

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  1. Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2007), 70–71.
  2. Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 330–31.
  3. Hans Boersma, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (Downers, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 46–49.
  4. Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM, 1991), xv.
  5. Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), xiii; emphasis original.
Written by
Boram Cha

Boram Cha (PhD, Durham University) is Lecturer in Systematic and Anglican Theology at Sungkonghoe University/Anglican Divinity School, Seoul, and Canon Theologian at Seoul Anglican Cathedral. As a member of clergy in the Diocese of Seoul he represents the Anglican Church of Korea in some of the Anglican Communion networks such as the Commission for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (CTEAC) and the Fellowship of Anglican Scholars of Theology (FeAST).

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Written by Boram Cha